Dictionary Definition



1 the philosophical doctrine that environment is more important than heredity in determining intellectual growth [ant: hereditarianism]
2 the activity of protecting the environemnt from pollution or destruction

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A political and social ideology that seeks to prevent the environment from degradation by human activity.


  • Portuguese: ambientalismo

Extensive Definition

Environmentalism is a broad philosophy and social movement centered on a concern for the conservation and improvement of the natural environment, both for its own sake as well as its importance to civilization. Environmentalists frequently speak of a planet or place faced with a plethora of grave and urgent threats; often associated with unbridled consumption, economic growth, materialism, insensitive development, and booming human numbers. Perhaps most problematic from an environmentalist perspective is the modern view that humanity's fate is divorced from that of the natural world, and that our responsibility to nature is - at best - limited to the satisfaction of shallow desires.
In various ways, environmentalists and environmental groups seek to give the natural world a stronger voice in human affairs and struggle to make governments, industry and other institutions see the importance of ecology and to treat nature with greater respect. Many environmentalists see common cause with indigenous communities and other marginalized groups struggling to protect their traditional way of life or freedom from blind commerce and other global incursions.
Though opinions vary, environmentalism may be seen as a spectrum; from the radical to the reformist (see also Dark Greens, Light Greens and Bright Greens below). Those at the former end tend to believe that humanity cannot achieve harmony with the natural world without radical adjustments to our worldview, including seeing ourselves as merely one species among many, rather than the pinnacle of creation with the right to wantonly destroy the environment to meet our ends. This group believes that nothing short of a complete overhaul of our political, economic and industrial systems is required to achieve a sustainable society. In this, environmentalism has its roots in a deeper radical, idealist, dissenting tradition in Western civilization.
In practice, however, most environmentalists tend to fall in on the reformist end of the spectrum, with countless campaigns to reform laws, elect sympathetic lawmakers and win over the public. Free-market environmentalists believe that environmental stewardship begins with a respect for private property, and that the natural tendency is to reject contamination of one's environment by expulsion of aggressors. Nonetheless, the drive of many reform environmentalists probably lies in heartfelt views quite sympathetic to those of the radicals, albeit more inclined to a kind of pragmatism.



Though the modern environmental movement arose during the Industrial Revolution, a concern for environmental protection has recurred in diverse forms, in different parts of the world, throughout history. For example, in the Middle East, the earliest known writings concerned with environmental pollution were Arabic medical treatises written during the "Arab Agricultural Revolution", by writers such as Alkindus, Costa ben Luca, Rhazes, Ibn Al-Jazzar, al-Tamimi, al-Masihi, Avicenna, Ali ibn Ridwan, Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, Abd-el-latif, and Ibn al-Nafis. They were concerned with air contamination, water contamination, soil contamination, solid waste mishandling, and environmental assessments of certain localities.
In Europe, King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London in 1272, after its smoke had become a problem. But the fuel was so common in England that this earliest of names for it was acquired because it could be carted away from some shores by the wheelbarrow. Air pollution would continue to be a problem there, especially later during the industrial revolution, and extending into the recent past with the Great Smog of 1952.

Origins of environmental movement

In Europe, it was the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to modern environmental pollution as it is generally understood today. The emergence of great factories and consumption of immense quantities of coal and other fossil fuels gave rise to unprecedented air pollution and the large volume of industrial chemical discharges added to the growing load of untreated human waste. The first large-scale, modern environmental laws came in the form of the British Alkali Acts, passed in 1863, to regulate the deleterious air pollution (gaseous hydrochloric acid) given off by the Leblanc process, used to produce soda ash. Environmentalism grew out of the amenity movement, which was a reaction to industrialization, the growth of cities, and worsening air and water pollution.
In the United States, the beginnings of an environmental movement can be traced as far back as 1739, when Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia residents, citing "public rights," petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop waste dumping and remove tanneries from Philadelphia's commercial district. The US movement expanded in the 1800s, out of concerns for protecting the natural resources of the West, with individuals such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau making key philosophical contributions. Thoreau was interested in peoples' relationship with nature and studied this by living close to nature in a simple life. He published his experiences in the book Walden, which argues that people should become intimately close with nature. Muir came to believe in nature's inherent right, especially after spending time hiking in Yosemite Valley and studying both the ecology and geology. He successfully lobbied congress to form Yosemite National Park and went on to set up the Sierra Club. The conservationist principles as well as the belief in an inherent right of nature were to become the bedrock of modern environmentalism.
In the 20th century environmental ideas continued to grow in popularity and recognition. Efforts were starting to be made to save some wildlife, particularly the American Bison. The death of the last Passenger Pigeon as well as the endangerment of the American Bison helped to focus the minds of conservationists and popularize their concerns. Notably in 1916 the National Park Service was founded by President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1949 A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was published. It explained Leopold’s belief that humankind should have moral respect for the environment and that it is unethical to harm it. The book is sometimes called the most influential book on conservation.
In 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson. The book cataloged the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. The resulting public concern lead to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 which subsequently banned the agricultural use of DDT in the US in 1972. The limited use of DDT in disease vector control continues to this day in certain parts of the world and remains controversial. The book's legacy was to produce a far greater awareness of environmental issues and interest into how people affect the environment. With this new interest in environment came interest in problems such as air pollution and oil spills, and environmental interest grew. New pressure groups formed, notably Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
In the 1970s the Chipko movement was formed in India; influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, they set up peaceful resistance to deforestation by literally hugging trees (leading to the term "tree huggers"). Their peaceful methods of protest and slogan "ecology is permanent economy" were very influential.
By the mid 1970s many felt that people were on the edge of environmental catastrophe. The Back-to-the-land movement started to form and ideas of environmental ethics joined with anti-Vietnam War sentiments and other political issues. These individuals lived outside normal society and started to take on some of the more radical environmental theories such as deep ecology. Around this time more mainstream environmentalism was starting to show force with the signing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the formation of CITES in 1975.
In 1979 former NASA scientist James Lovelock published Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, which put forth the Gaia Hypothesis, that life on Earth can be understood as a single organism. This became an important part of the Deep Green ideology. Throughout the rest of the history of environmentalism there has been debate and argument between more radical followers of this Deep Green ideology and more mainstream environmentalists.
Environmentalism has also changed to deal with new issues such as global warming and genetic engineering.

Environmental movement

The Environmental movement (a term that sometimes includes the conservation and green movements) is a diverse scientific, social, and political movement. In general terms, environmentalists advocate the sustainable management of resources, and the protection (and restoration, when necessary) of the natural environment through changes in public policy and individual behavior. In its recognition of humanity as a participant in ecosystems, the movement is centered around ecology, health, and human rights. Additionally, throughout history, the movement has been incorporated into religion. The movement is represented by a range of organizations, from the large to grassroots, but a younger demographic than is common in other social movements (see green seniors). Due to its large membership, varying and strong beliefs, the movement is not entirely united. Indeed, some argue that an environmental ethic of at least some sort is so urgently needed in all quarters that the broader the better. Conversely, disunity can be a weakness in the face of strong opposition from unsympathetic political and industrial forces.

Free market environmentalism

Free market environmentalism is a theory that argues that the free market, property rights, and tort law provide the best tools to preserve the health and sustainability of the environment. This is in sharp contrast to the most common modern approach of looking to legislative government intervention to prevent destruction of the environment. It considers environmental stewardship to be natural, as well as the expulsion of pollutors and other aggressors through individual and class action.

Preservation and conservation

Environmental preservation, chiefly in the United States, is viewed as the strict setting aside of natural resources to prevent damage caused by contact with humans or by certain human activities, such as logging, mining, hunting, and fishing. It is different from conservation; conservation allows for some degree of industrial development, albeit it within sustainable limits. Regulations and laws may be enacted for the preservation of natural resources.
Elsewhere in the world the terms preservation and conservation may be less contested and are often used interchangeably.

Popular environmentalism

Environmentalist action has recently led to the development of a new subculture. It is mainly composed of the educated middle and upper-class. This subculture often exhibits sustainable consumption patterns, choosing local and organic products over the more conventional imported products that have been manufactured using chemicals such as pesticides and preservatives.
Criticism of this 'green consumerism' comes from some environmentalists who complain of elitism, suggesting that this is nothing more than shopping under the banner of environmentalism without espousing any of its true ideals. Because organic and sustainable products are often more expensive, purchasing them may be seen as a mark of wealth. It is argued that this new trend has taken the focus away from the real problems 'true' environmentalists hope to solve. Consumer items offer a deceptively easy, feel-good way to both save the world and one's reputation simultaneously. Yet, others reply that practicing green consumerism does not necessarily mean these consumers merely "vote with their dollar". Simultaneously, many would agree that the price of sustainable goods should be lowered.
An association with the affluent in society (to some extent perceived) has promoted the "too poor to be green" argument. This suggests that environmental protection is an elitist endeavor that, at its worst, undermines the right of the poor to the benefits of industrialization. Moreover, so the argument goes, the poor are more concerned with day to day challenges, such as earning a wage and putting food on the table, and that environmental protection is a secondary concern. The reality is probably far more complex, and there are certainly many instances of poorer communities fighting for environmental goals - especially where these are seen as synonymous with their rights to happiness and health, or where the environment is culturally important, as is often the case.
Many people have recently embraced a vegetarian diet. This spin-off of popular environmentalism is called environmental vegetarianism and cites the fact that the meat industry has become more and more detrimental to the environment. This new vegetarian and vegan "revolution" coined the phrase "you can't eat meat and call yourself an environmentalist".

Dark Greens, Light Greens and Bright Greens

Contemporary environmentalists are often described as being split into three groups, 'Dark' 'Light' and 'Bright' Greens.
Light Greens see protecting the environment first and foremost as a personal responsibility. They fall in on the reformist end of the spectrum introduced above, but light Greens do not emphasize environmentalism as a distinct political ideology, or even seek fundamental political reform. Instead they often focus on environmentalism as a lifestyle choice. The motto "Green is the new black." sums up this way of thinking, for many.
In contrast, dark greens believe that environmental problems are an inherent part of industrialized capitalism, and seek radical political change. As discussed earlier, 'dark greens' tend to believe that dominant political ideologies (sometimes referred to as industrialism) are corrupt and inevitably lead to consumerism, alienation from nature and resource depletion. Dark Greens claim that this is caused by the emphasis on growth that exists within all existing ideologies, a tendency referred to as ‘growth mania’. The dark green brand of environmentalism is associated with ideas of Deep Ecology, Post-materialism, Holism, the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock and the work of Fritjof Capra. The division between light and dark greens was visible in the fighting between Fundi and Realo factions of the German Green Party.
More recently, a third group may be said to have emerged in the form of Bright Greens. This group believes that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations are the means to make those changes-- and that we can neither shop nor protest our way to sustainability. As Ross Robertson writes, "[B]right green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the “tools, models, and ideas” that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions."

Environmental organizations and conferences

Environmental organizations can be global, regional, national or local; they can be government-run or private (NGO). Despite a tendency to see environmentalism as an American or Western-centered pursuit, almost every country has its share of environmental activism. Moreover, groups dedicated to community development and social justice may also attend to environmental concerns.
Some US environmental organizations, among them the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, specialize in bringing lawsuits (a tactic seen as particularly useful in that country). Other groups, such as the US-based National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society, and global groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature and Friends of the Earth, disseminate information, participate in public hearings, lobby, stage demonstrations, and may purchase land for preservation. Smaller groups, including Wildlife Conservation International, conduct research on endangered species and ecosystems. More radical organizations, such as Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front, have more directly opposed actions they regard as environmentally harmful. While Greenpeace is devoted to nonviolent confrontation as a means of bearing witness to environmental wrongs and bringing issues into the public realm for debate, the underground Earth Liberation Front engages in the clandestine destruction of property, the release of caged or penned animals, and other criminal acts. Such tactics are regarded as unusual within the movement, however.
On an international level, concern for the environment was the subject of a UN conference in Stockholm in 1972, attended by 114 nations. Out of this meeting developed UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and the follow-up United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Other international organizations in support of environmental policies development include the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NAFTA), the European Environment Agency (EEA), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Some US colleges are now going green by signing the "President's Climate Commitment," a document that a college President can sign to enable said colleges to practice environmentalism by switching to solar power, etc.
In Canada, the federal government initiated a sector council program to help promote careers in the Environment Industry. The environmental sector council, Canadian Council for Human Resources in the Environment Industry (CCHREI) was founded in 1992 to help recent graduates gain meaningful employment in the environmental field, help practitioners advance in their careers, help environmental employers gain access to a sufficient supply of qualified practitioners, and help bridge gaps between the academic community and actual needs in the industry. CCHREI changed name to ECO Canada in 2005.


From at least 1946, American comics with an environmental, conservation or outdoor theme have appeared; including Mark Trail, Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl.


Further reading

External links

  • EnviroLink Network - A non-profit clearinghouse of environmental news and information
  • The Green Challenge - a website aimed at informing its readers of environmental issues worldwide, and motivating them to take part in campaigns.
environmentalism in Asturian: Ecoloxismu
environmentalism in Czech: Environmentalismus
environmentalism in German: Ökologismus
environmentalism in Esperanto: Naturprotektismo
environmentalism in Basque: Ekologismo
environmentalism in French: Écologisme
environmentalism in Hebrew: סביבתנות
environmentalism in Polish: Ochrona środowiska
environmentalism in Swedish: Ekologism
environmentalism in Chinese: 环境保护主义
environmentalism in Slovak: Environmentalizmus
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